Police are removing shotguns from farmers on the brink of suicide as the Government contemplates a mass cull of 500,000 pregnant ewes to halt the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

Any cull would be on strict animal welfare grounds and would relate to ewes grazing miles from their home farms. But with the disease spreading in a second wave across the country, including the first infected farm in the West Midlands, emotions in the farming community are running high. By last night there were 183 cases in 23 counties. 

In Devon alone five farmers have been persuaded by local police to surrender their shotguns on an unofficial basis that they should be kept "out of harm’s way" until the disease passes. 

The action is being taken without using formal powers under the 1968 Firearms Act but on an informal basis. Other forces in rural areas are also closely monitoring despair in local farming communities. In only one instance have police formally removed a shotgun from a distressed license holder — George Thomas, 55, whose Green Acre Farm is in Highampton, Devon. He was calving 130 cows with foot-and-mouth when he threatened to "get his gun" as police looked on. Police, GPs, the Samaritans and the Rural Stress Information Network are keeping a close eye on depressed farmers and their families. The impact of the disease on the rural economy is also causing deep concern and Tony Blair will start a series of meetings today with rural businessmen, hoteliers and those in farm tourism. 

Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, will meet ministers to discuss possible help for the tourist industry, which stands to lose up to $3 billion over Easter alone. Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, said the country was in for "a long haul". "There are going to be more cases and this is going to be a major disease outbreak with a long tail." 

In the "hotspot" cluster areas in prime tourist locations of Cumbria, Northumberland, Devon and Dumfries and Galloway, it could be nine or ten weeks after the last case before normal movements are restored. Jim Scudamore, the Chief Veterinary Officer, was confident the cases would all eventually link with sheep movements around markets, or movements of vehicles. 

He admitted that he was "very concerned" about the potential impact of a case at Monkokehampton, near Winkleigh , Devon, where 700 pigs were in contact with the disease. Pigs spread the disease by breathing out plumes of the virus which can be carried up to 25 miles in the wind. 

In France officials said they had strong suspicions that six cases were detected yesterday in cattle in the North West.